Play is vital: finding more play and toys in Berkeley

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

Play is alive and well in Berkeley! But not everyone realizes how important playtime is to improving well being, reducing stress, and increasing joyfulness.

We know children and adults need plenty of time to play, using all the senses, stretching the imagination, and making time to be creative. Everyone benefits from varied outdoor play that expands activity, increases use of large muscles, and expands sounds. There are many important reasons to monitor time spent with TV and electronics.

Watching TV, playing video games, and using electronics makes people more rote and passive while random movements made while playing directly contributes to optimal development, mental balance, and staying fit.   Play integrates a natural drive to discover, and is the essence of a happy childhood, and is beneficial for all ages.

While TV and electronics can be easy, accessible, and simple substitutes, playful interactions with people and play products are essential for fullest mental and physical development. Turning on TV and playing computer games for hours without being involved with balanced playfulness undermines learning and growth.

So to balance your time and energy, find a Frisbee and locate a place to toss it with some friends; or find a kite and fly it on the Marina. You don’t have to wait for the “Kite Festival” to launch your kite upwards, or wait until the gym opens to have fun outdoors.

Wondering where to find fun places for play? There are many varied recreational places such as the amazing Adventure Playground, the inspiring Tilden Park, and many other green play spaces all around Berkeley.

Indoors, for preschoolers, there are two places that charge nominal amounts for play, but are perfect especially for little ones who are discovering the joy of play.

You can take your child to Habitot, which offers various activities such as water play plus many different special play environments. (2065 Kittredge St. Hours are Mon-Thu 9:30 am – 12:30 pm Fri-Sat 9:30 am – 4:30 pm).

Another open-ended play space is Studio Grow at 1235 10th St (between Harrison St & Gilman St). It is open Mon-Friday 9:30 am – 6 pm and Saturday and Sunday 9:30 am – 2 pm (later for birthday parties).

We are fortunate to have places many communities do not have. Yes it would be wonderful if there were even more places, but with mini parks, recreational places, the Y and Jewish Community Center we have a good variety of play spaces.

What about toys and other playthings?

Where do you find the best that children can enjoy and have as tools for fun for a long time?

Considering the diverse need for toys of all kinds and for all ages there are plenty of choices available in the toy marketplace.

Many excellent toy companies are designing products not only in Berkeley, but within a few miles. The realistic high-quality Folkmanis puppets were first sold on Telegraph Ave to benefit a local school. Now the owners’ son is grown and working in the company. Leap Frog is now a large company in Emeryville which had its start with one product to help children learn phonics. Peaceable Kingdom, located in Berkeley, offers diverse cooperative games and many other colorful and fun products.

Fortunately, there are some excellent, local and accessible toy stores available in Berkeley with a great variety of excellent products.

The first, and most established, retailer is the North Berkeley toy store Mr Mopps. Mr. Mopps’ is a Berkeley institution.  Here you will find the wonderfully realistic Folkmanis hand puppets from birds to animals and a dragon or two. Eugene Yamashita, who owned the store for 40 years, was pleased to turn over the legacy to new owners Devin McDonald and Jenny Stevenson. They are dedicated to maintaining the same quality, joy and diversity for which the store has been famous.

The new owners are warm and friendly and want to provide playthings that match the child’s age and interests. Devin grew up near the store. Now he is providing the same level of quality and joy he experienced as a child. They have every intention to “maintain the spirit and range of products at all prices for all ages. That means any adult who missed out on having a doll, puzzle, or a construction set can still be satisfied and enjoy the toy they purchase for themselves. Mr. Mopps is located at 1405 Martin Luther King Jr Way (between Rose St & ‘Vine St). It is open Tues- Fri 10:30 – 6:30 Sat and Sun  9:30

You will find the venerable center for games, Games of Berkeley in Downtown Berkeley.  The store offers a wide range of games of all kinds and for all interests plus they offer almost every day special events with games, such as Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! And Magic Draft and others. The owner, Mike Sloan, and his knowledgeable staff maintain a staggering wide range of games in all prices and themes. Games of Berkeley is located at 2151 Shattuck Avenue. It is open Monday-Saturday 10am-9pm and on Sunday from 11am-7pm.

We move on to Elmwood to Sweet Dreams.  This store, which opened in 1971, offers games, puppets, kites, books and toys. The store offers great window displays and an interesting array of products packed into a store from floor to ceiling.  These stores are not about lowest prices, but they offer personal service, gift wrapping and time to assist you with your selections. You will find Klutz, Alex’s creative sets, construction toys like LEGO, wooden toys, and plenty of dolls and plush animals. Also you will find a Skuut, the first pedal free bike that depends on balance, Yo Yo’s, and other traditional toys, science and craft kits of all kinds. Sweet Dreams is located at 2921 College Ave (between Ashby Ave & Russell St). It is open Mon-Sat 10 am – 6 pm and Sun 11:30 am – 5:30 pm.

Moving down University to 4th Street you will find a charming European-style toy store, owned by Gerald Johnson who purchased it from the founder Pam Byars. The Ark Toy Store is an excellent independent toy store for the discerning buyer where you will find many whimsical and handcrafted European toys that that will become family heirlooms. The toys are meant to entertain and inspire children of all ages: puzzles, ice cream makers, craft kits plus a loft full of children’s books, plenty of those wonderful plush puppets, plus activity toys like Hula Hoops, Frisbees, and balls. You will also find baby gifts to dreamy doll houses, paper dolls, rockets, medieval figurines, and marbles. Plenty of  small gifts are available for birthday parties and to give to the child inside of you,  and to other playful friends or family. Look up to see a full range of wooden arks, and other fanciful products that fill the ceiling and walls on both sides of the store. The windows are always very beautiful. They offer a frequent buyer card to encourage you to return and continue shopping. The Ark Toy Store is at 1812 4th St (between Hearst Ave & Virginia St). It is open 10am -7pm Mon-Sun.

Just over the border in Albany visit the unique Toy Goy Round Instead of throwing away your old toys, recycle them. The store takes toys on consignment, and returns 50% of the selling price. They ask that you clean and sort your toys before bringing them in. What you bring in is recorded and added to your account. Toy Go Round is located at 1361 Solano Ave  Albany. It is open Monday through Saturday 10 am-6 pm and on Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm. Consignment hours are Mon-Sat 10 am – 12 pm.

Another excellent choice is the Discover Corner Toy and Bookshop at the Lawrence Hall of Science. This store specializes in educational products for children, but there are also plenty of play and learning books, kits and products that will appeal to scientists of all ages. Lawrence Hall of Science Members receive a 10% discount on all purchases. Lawrence Hall of Science is located at 1 Centennial Drive.

Regardless of where you shop or what you buy visit these stores in Berkeley and find toys you and the children in your life will enjoy for a long time.

Tell them Dr. Toy sent you to find the right plaything.


This handy checklist will help when you are evaluating a toy for its value. These are questions to ask yourself about the potential of any product. These questions are also available  in many different languages.

Dr. Toy’s Tips on Selecting Toys

  1. Safety

Is the toy safe? Are there potential hazards? Is the product too small? Are there sharp edges or loose ties? Is it nontoxic? Will it take rough treatment? Does it meet Consumer Product Safety Standards? Is there a warranty?

  1. Fun

Does it entertain the child? Does it amuse, delight, excite?

  1. Age Grading

Is the product age-appropriate? Does it fit the child’s age, skills, and abilities? Will it hold the child’s interest? Will it make the child happy?

  1. Design

Is it easy to use? Does it look good? Does it feel good?

  1. Versatility

Is it versatile? Is there more than one use for the product?

  1. Durability

Will it last a long time? Children play hard and subject their toys to a lot of abuse and wear.

  1. Interesting

Is it enticing? Is it fun to play with? Does it offer an opportunity to learn, and to think? Does it teach about the child’s environment?

  1. Creativity

Will it expand the child’s creativity?

The right products can expand the child’s imagination in art, crafts, hobbies, language, reading, music, movement, and drama.

  1. Usability

Will it frustrate or challenge the child? Does it offer something new to learn, to practice, or try? Will the child know how to use the product? Or, will it be too difficult to use without adult assistance?

  1. Packaging

Does the product match the package and the package match the product? If the toy does not match ads or packaging it can be disappointing. Is age-grading clear? Is the item in the store like the product shown in the print or TV advertisement?

  1. Personal Values

Will it nurture childhood? Does it help the child express emotions, experience concern for others, practice positive social interaction? Does it promote wholesome childhood values? Or are there any violent, sexist, or other negative aspects to the product?

  1. Educational

What will it teach? Does it expand positive self-esteem, values, understanding, and cultural awareness? Does it offer practice in skill-building? Eye-hand coordination? Fine and large motor skills? Communication? Does it educate the child about the environment? The community? The world? History? Computers? Other skills?

  1. Maintenance

Can it be cleaned and reused? If it is not washable, can it be cleaned in some practical way?

  1. Cost

Is it affordable? Does the price match the value received?

These additional questions are useful as you consider why some toys have greater appeal or value than others:

  • Will the toy challenge the physical and mental abilities of a child in the specified age range?
  • Does it play well?
  • How long does it hold the child’s interest?
  • What about the packaging?  Is it easy to read?  Is it unique?  Does the toy and the package have anything new and special to offer?  Does the packaging tell the truth?  Does it sell the toy? Are the directions clearly written?  Are they well-illustrated?
  • Are the materials well-made and long lasting?
  • Is the toy made of good materials?
  • Does it meet safety standards?
  • Is the price reasonable?
  • Is the name appropriate?
  • Does the name sell the toy?

Most of all remember “Let’s Play!”

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles of 500 to 800 words. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Stevanne Auerbach, PhD, for the past 40 years one of the most respected persons in toys, is known as Dr. Toy, who has focused on child development, education, special education, psychology, parent education as related to toys and children’s products. She selects and evaluates the newest, best, educational, creative, and active toys, games, and other products for her award programs. Dr. Auerbach, the author of three books on toys; Smart Play/Smart Toys: How to Raise a child with a High P.Q. Play Quotient is published in 12 countries; writes about toys and products for Dr. Toy’s Guide, She has released a new App, Dr Toy’s Best Gift Guide.